By Samantha Wittenberg
Imagine experiencing deep connection with your colleagues, being seen and heard and understood by your employer, being free to express yourself honestly at work. Imagine your work environment being a safe, warm and nurturing space where everyone is empowered and encouraged to share, collaborate and co-create.
Does this sound like an impossible fantasy?
I wanted all these qualities and more from my work life. I had them when I worked at an ayurvedic centre in Cape Town but I was not able to achieve financial independence. So I said goodbye to my known circle of friends, took my leave from familiar places and hangouts, left my ten year old daughter to live with her father, and went to live in Johannesburg for two years. I joined a small law firm as an articled clerk.
Instead of warmth, I was met with outright hostility by some of the staff, they seemed to take an instant dislike to me. I went into shock. Instead of deep connection, we gathered in the boardroom on Fridays after work, to drink alcohol and make small talk. Instead of being understood, I wept silently and alone in the one and a half hour daily commute to and from work. Instead of collaboration and support, the system in the office had each of us desperately trying to get through the enormous pile of files on our own desks. I felt overwhelmed much of the time and the only time my guts relaxed, was when the boss left the office. I was in a constant state of anxiety, expecting to be called in for a mistake in my work, at any moment.
Naively, I once asked my boss if he would consider paying for me to go to counselling as I could not afford it on a clerk’s salary. To me it seemed obvious that a more fulfilled employee would be an advantage to him. It seemed obvious to me that everyone’s needs mattered. He seemed slightly amused and his response was: “I’m sorry, I can’t do that for you because then I’ll have to do it for everyone.”
Unsurprisingly, I left that firm after a year. If just some of my needs had been met to some extent, I might have stayed for a very long time. I know for sure, that I would have given so much more of myself, over and above what was expected from me and the amount of money would not have been important. I felt genuine affection and gratitude towards my boss and a willingness to serve him but with very few other needs met, this was not enough. Yet, I am still deeply grateful for the experience as it was an essential part of my journey of empowerment and learning to take responsibility for my own needs.
In that company, my boss was perpetuating the dominant system of “power over”. He had access to most of the external power in our group: access to the financial means to pay our salaries, power to decide who was hired and fired, power to make all the important decisions in the company. He reasoned consciously or unconsciously, that he needed to exercise and maintain this power in order to be successful and make profit. Unfortunately this is a system in which the one with power ‘wins’ and the one without power ‘loses’. It is a life-alienating system.
Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication, explained violence as follows:
Most people refer to violence as physically trying to hurt another.
We also consider violence any use of power over people, trying to coerce people into doing things. That would include any use of punishment and reward, any use of guilt, shame, duty and obligation. Violence in this larger sense is any use of force to coerce people to do things.
Marshall gave us great insights into how we can influence the domination structures, whether they are in corporations, governments or schools. At their core, most domination structures are attempting to fulfill a need – to serve people, to contribute to life. With the consciousness and practice of Nonviolent Communication in our workplaces, we can make our own lives more wonderful, as well as those of our colleagues and clients.
So what does an organisation look like in which its leadership practices power with people? We will be discussing this and sharing some practical tools at our upcoming training:
Learn the basics of Nonviolent Communication at our two-day introductory training on 17 & 18 October 2017 in Cape Town. The training will be facilitated by CNVC certified trainer Nicholas Burnand (from BlaBla, Belgium) and Sarah Dekker (Language that Works, Cape Town). Click here to book or read more.